Survival in Auschwitz | Study Guide

Primo Levi

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Survival in Auschwitz | Chapter 10 : Chemical Examination | Summary



A new kommando is announced, the chemical kommando, Kommando 98. The kapo, Alex, is a "green triangle" (a criminal). Until production begins, it will be an ordinary kommando. Alex says he will not be mocked by intellectuals, and he will not be tricked. Everyone who applies will be given an examination by the Polymerization Department.

Numerous men apply. Nearest to Levi as he joins the group are Alberto, his friend; a Dutchman; and Iss Clausner. They go to the chemical chloride warehouse to work. By the third day, the group is reduced to 12 men, and of them, 5 are not chemists. They ask to return to their original kommandos, but instead, they are allowed to stay. The seven go to the examinations, and, when it is Levi's turn, he is questioned by Doktor Pannwitz. The doctor is satisfied with the examination, but Levi realizes he "would be crazy to rely on it." However, at the least, he has spent a day not working. As he is leaving, Alex (the kapo) has taken hold of a steel cable and so has black grease on his hand. "Without hatred and without sneering, Alex wipes his hand" on Levi.


Like three of the men in the last chapter, Levi has a trait that marks him as more likely to survive. He is a skilled chemist. The formation of the new kommando means that he stands a chance of escaping some of the hardships that would otherwise kill him sooner. The possibilities of being a part of this work detail are alluring enough that many people are interested in it.

One of the moments in Auschwitz that stands out as evidence of indifference rather than cruelty is the encounter here with the kapo. Alex, a criminal held at Auschwitz, is not trying to torment or degrade Levi with his actions. He simply does not see Levi as a person. He treats him like a human rag.

Alex's action shows the mindset at the camp that the reader has witnessed throughout Levi's text. At arrival time, the prisoners stand naked, their clothes and shoes taken. At the Ka-Be, again, they are left naked and without food. They are treated—as with the nurse examining Levi while he waits—like nothing more than a corpse in a class. Nationalist ideas manifest as seeing the Jews as less than human. They are identified by number, and their treatment during the months or weeks they live in the camp is consistently dehumanizing. Alex's act of treating Levi as a tissue or rag to wipe away the grease on his hand is merely a small-scale example of the reality of Auschwitz. He has no animosity toward Levi personally. His action is simply the behavior of a person who does not see Levi as a man.

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